China’s Neighbourhood Challenges
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 08 Jun , 2017

Philippines. Un-delimited maritime boundaries and overlapping maritime claims are an enduring source of tension between the Philippines and China, despite rapidly expanding economic ties. The dispute over the South China Sea tends to dominate their interactions. China asserts territorial sovereignty over numerous islands in the South China Sea, especially the Spratly islands, on historic grounds. The Philippines claims sovereignty over several of the same islands, which it refers to as the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).8 They also contest sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. The unanimous award issued on July 12, 2016, by the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the arbitration constituted by the Philippines against China has muddied the water even more. Philippine relations with China, while increasingly strong, especially in economic terms, can in political and diplomatic terms be characterized largely as cautious at best, and even hostile at times.

South Korea. There are outstanding maritime disputes between China and South Korea, though the two states have sought to manage their competing claims and friction over access to marine resources by their fishing fleets through the establishment of a joint fishing zone in the Yellow Sea.

Taiwan. Separated by the 161 kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait, China and Taiwan’s border dispute is complex. For much of its post-1949 history the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan claimed all of-mainland China plus Mongolia as its sovereign territory. Taipei’s hopes of retaking the mainland have diminished, but it has territorial claims and actual control over a number of small islands off the coast of China, including Jinmen (formerly Quemoy) and Mazu, as well as the Pratas islands. It also retains control over the largest island in the Spratly, Itu Aba (Taiping Island). The PRC claims not only all of the offshore islands controlled by Taiwan, but all the islands of the ROC proper, such as the Penghu (formerly the Pescadores), Green (Lu Dao), and Orchid (Lan Yu) islands. The two governments agree with each other, however, on many South China Sea territorial and maritime claims against other Asian nations. Indeed Beijing and Taipei have cooperated in the past against other claimants in the South China Sea. Further, it was, in fact, the ROC that first published a map in 1947 including the infamous eleven-dashed line claiming the majority of the South China Sea, a claim that the PRC later adopted in its nine-dashed line map.


It has been averred that China has four strategic goals:

  • Maintain Internal Order. The first and most important aim pursued by China’s leaders since the founding of the modern Chinese state has been the preservation of internal order and the domination of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
  • Sustain High Economic Growth. The goal of ensuring continued and unchallenged Communist rule leads to the second operational aspiration: sustaining the high levels of economic growth necessary to preserve social order.
  • Pacify the Periphery. The external advantages arising from China’s high growth rates thus far have strengthened its capacity to achieve the third operational aim deriving from its quest for comprehensive national power: the pacification of its extended geographic periphery. Beijing has sought to accomplish this by deepening economic ties with its Asian neighbours to “reduce regional anxieties” about China’s rise; making common cause with some states, such as Russia, that have reasons to resist joining the larger balancing against China now under way in Asia; embarking on a concerted modernization of the PLA; and renewing older efforts to delegitimize the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
  • Cement International Status. The CCP’s desire to preserve domestic control is enhanced by the final element of the strategic goal of maximizing comprehensive national power: enhancing China’s status as a central actor in the international system. 9 

China is pursuing three main objectives in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia: regional integration, resource control, and enhanced security. The recent heightening of the competition between China and its neighbours over sovereignty, resources, and security in the South China Sea has drawn the attention of political and military leaders from many countries that seek to promote stability and security in these globally important waters. For states that ring the South China Sea, its waters represent a zone of rich hydrocarbon and protein resources that are increasingly dear on land as populations exhaust their territories’ ability to meet their increasing needs. This resource competition alone could be the basis of sharp-edged disputes between the claimants. The South China Sea also represents the projection of the cultural consciousness of the centuries-long relationship that each coastal nation has had with its adjoining seas. This fact fuels competing modern-day nationalist tendencies among claimant-state populations, tendencies that in turn magnify the importance of the disputes and, during times of crisis, narrow the options for negotiation or de-escalation.

In 1947 the Nationalist government of the Republic of China published maps with a U-shaped series of lines in the South China Sea delineating its maritime boundaries (see map). These maps were based on a 1935 internal government report prepared to define the limits of China, many parts of which were dominated by outside powers at the time.10 Though the exact nature of the claim was never specified by the Nationalist government, the cartographic feature persisted in maps published by the Communist Party after it came to power on the mainland in 1949, and today the U-shaped line’s nine dashes in the South China Sea remain on maps published both in China and on Taiwan.11 In 1992, further clarifying its claims of sovereignty over all the islands in the South China Sea, the PRC enacted its Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which specifies that China claims sovereignty over all of the island groups that fall within the U-shaped line in the South China Sea: the Pratas Islands (Dongsha), the Paracel Islands (Xisha), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha), and the Spratly Islands (Nansha). The Chinese government appears to maintain a studied policy of ambiguity about the line’s meaning.12 A second category of disputes involves the delimitation of jurisdictional boundaries between neighbouring sea zones, including EEZs and continental shelves. China complicates these disputes through its ambiguous claims of authority over the water space within the nine-dash line, but it is clear that the claim encompasses aspects of jurisdiction as well as aspects of sovereignty.”13

Disputes over sovereignty centre on questions of which coastal states have the right to exercise the full measure of state authority over the physical territory of the islands in the South China Sea. They involve Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan.14 Vietnam claims “indisputable sovereignty” over all of the Spratly (Truong Sa) and Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands;15 one possible interpretation of some of its recent submissions to the United Nations (UN), however, is that it might be willing to relinquish its claims, at least as regards the Spratlys, in return for recognition of wider resource rights in the South China Sea.16

The PLA Navy operates up to 10 nuclear-powered submarines and as many as 60 diesel-electric vessels, more than any other Asian country. China’s second-generation, nuclear-powered Jin- and Shang-class submarines are considered just a notch below cutting-edge US and Russian crafts.

China’s recognition of the importance of the seas stems from the historic reality that its ‘century of humiliation’ was caused by western nations that came via the sea. Its quest for great nationhood passes through the waters of the Indian Ocean. Thus, China’s major maritime worry is India, which occupies a central position astride the Indian Ocean. Decades have passed since the 1962 border war, but its shadow still influences Sino-India relations and the scars of that conflict are yet to heal. The long-standing boundary issue between the two countries has defied a satisfactory solution and is a constraint in collaboration on larger global issues. Negotiations have failed to resolve the dispute and border incidents have intensified recently.

While China’s international water disputes are numerous, it is also the source of cross-border river flows into Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, North Korea, Indochina, i.e. the largest number of countries in the world. (Tibetan sources alone supply water to 11 countries.) China’s construction of dams within its borders ipso facto affects hundreds of millions of people outside China. Sharing so many critically important rivers with so many neighbours is a source of power for China, but it is also a burden, arousing suspicion and anger, especially when China makes decisions it regards as vital for its own internal development and national interests that can fundamentally alter daily life and development patterns in the lower riparian countries. Thus, China’s neighbourhood and border disputes remain absolutely fundamental.

An element of Chinese strategic thought and behaviour is a stress on limited wars, constrained by well-defined spatial and temporal restrictions on violence. China has been relatively successful in using limited amounts of force, in coordination with diplomatic tools, to pursue clearly defined, limited political aims. Its grand strategic behaviour has been characterized by defence at or only slightly beyond “the gates,” a relative rather than zero-sum concept of victory, pacification and deterrence, a non-zero sum concept of conflict which reduces pressures to escalate, and an ability to preserve a strict hierarchy of political goals in the midst of conflict, among other traits.17

China’s rise might seem to deter external threats to its territorial integrity. Its relative power might also imply that future conflicts at or near its borders are unlikely to erupt, as its boundaries are secured by the PLA’s size and strength. Nevertheless, the lack of focus on China’s doctrine for maintaining its territorial integrity, which Chinese sources describe as ‘frontier defence’ (bianfang), is striking for two reasons:

  • Many of China’s armed conflicts have emphasized the goal of maintaining territorial integrity. These include battles with the Nationalists over coastal islands in the early 1950s, operations against Nationalist irregulars in Burma in 1960–61, the 1962 border war with India, the 1969 clash over Zhenbao Island with the Soviet Union, aspects of the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, intense border clashes with Vietnam in the 1980s as well as conflicts with the US in Korea and Vietnam, and crises in the Taiwan Strait.
  • Though China is strengthening its air and naval power projection capabilities, it can today still most readily employ military force over land with its army and land-based air power. To date, China has yet to develop expeditionary forces to project power over water far from its shores.18

The future remains uncertain, but China’s approach to frontier defence provides a clear baseline for assessing its power projection capabilities on the Asian continent. The growth in Chinese power capabilities does not necessarily portend a more aggressive use of Chinese power, or more dispute involvement. Indeed, it may be less, as long as China’s territorial integrity is not challenged and as long as it is accorded sufficient international status (such as involvement in all major international institutions and full partnership in major global order issues).

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.

The emphasis on Taiwan overshadows China’s armed forces preparing for their core mission, defending territorial integrity. The unification of Taiwan is but one of China’s declared national strategic goals.19 Other goals for China’s armed forces are to ‘guard against and resist aggression . . . ensure that the nation’s territorial waters, airspace and borders are not violated . . . be on guard against and strike all forms of terrorism, separatism and extremism.’20 How China plans to achieve this and the implications of its approach for the region merit greater analysis.

Achieving a lasting situation of regional stability will require new approaches. The current pursuits of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and control are by nature win-lose. Power alone may produce settlements, but they may not be final, because they do not account for the long-standing mutual interests of others. New forms of problem solving are needed today, marked by shared rather than exclusive authority and mutual rather than nationalistic interests. Only such approaches will ensure that the twenty-first century does not mirror the rivalry and conflict that dominated the twentieth.


1. See, for example, Nazli Choucri and Robert Carver North, Nations in Conflict: National Growth and International Violence (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman 1975); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge UP 1981); A.F.K. Organski, World Politics (New York: Knopf 1958).

2. Alice L. Miller, Hoover Digest: Research and Opinion on Public Policy, 2005, (accessed 21 May 2011).

3. See Bruce A Elleman, Stephen Kotkin and Clive Schofield (eds.); Beijing’s Power & China’s Borders: Twenty Neighbours in Asia (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2013).

4. For an overview of the latest military developments in PLA capabilities and strategies, see Office of the Secretary of Defence, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” Annual Report to Congress; Dennis J. Blasko, “Observations on Military Modernization and International Influence–An Alternate View,” A Paper Prepared for the National Defense University Conference on China’s Global Activism: Implications for U.S. Security Interests (National Defense University, 20 June 2006)

5. For discussions on China’s role in the international order, see Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small, “China’s New Dictatorship Democracy: Is Beijing Parting with Pariahs?,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2008).

6. Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (Yale University Press, 2007), 146.

7. Ibid.

8. Philippine Mission to the United Nations, letter ser. 11-00494, no. 000228, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, 5 April 2011, available at

9. Robert D. Blackwill , China’s Strategy for Asia: Maximize Power, Replace America, The National Interest; 26 May 2016

10. Li Jinming and Li Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note,” Ocean Development and International Law 34 (2003), pp. 287–95.

11. It should be noted that on Chinese maps there is a tenth dash outside the South China Sea, to the southeast of Taiwan that clearly indicates China’s claim over that island.

12. For a recent version of China’s nine-dashed-line claim, see Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, letter ser. CML/18/2009 to H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, 7 May 2009, available (in English) at

13. Valencia, Van Dyke, and Ludwig, Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea, p. 77. The authors note that “China seems to have developed a three noes policy to deal with the Spratlys issue—no specification of claims, no multilateral negotiations, and no internationalization of the issue, including no involvement of outside powers.” China’s policy seems to have remained unchanged over the past eleven years.

14. Joshua P. Rowan, “The U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, ASEAN, and the South China Sea Dispute,” Asian Security 45, no. 3 (May/June 2005), pp. 414, 419–29.

15. See, e.g., Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations, letter ser. 86/HC-2009 to H.E. Mr. Ban Kimoon, 8 May 2009, available at

16. Joint Submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf Pursuant to Article 76, Paragraph 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 in Respect of the Southern Part of the South China Sea, Part I: Executive Summary (n.p.: Government of Malaysia/Government of Socialist Republic of Vietnam, May 2009) [hereafter Malaysia-Vietnam Joint Submission], available at

17. See Alastair lain Johnston, China’s Militarized Interstate Dispute Behaviour 1949-1992: A First Cut at the Data; The China Quarterly, 1998

18. Paul H.B. Godwin, ‘China as a Major Asian Power: The Implications of Its Military Modernization’, in Andrew Scobell and Larry M. Wortzel (eds.), Shaping China’s Security Environment: The Role of the People’s Liberation Army (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute 2006), 107–35.

19. China does not publish a document similar to the National Security Strategy in the US, but its strategic goals for the development of military power can be identified through a range of Chinese sources and statements. See David M. Finkelstein, ‘China’s National Military Strategy Revisited’, paper presented at the conference ‘Exploring the ‘‘Right Size’’ for China’s Military’, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 6–8 Oct. 2006.

20. 2006 nian Zhongguo de guofang [China’s National Defence in 2006] (Beijing: Guowuyuan xinwen bangongshi, 2006),

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Col Harjeet Singh

Col Harjeet Singh

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